tue 19/09/2017

Phyllida Barlow: RIG, Hauser & Wirth, London | reviews, news & interviews

Phyllida Barlow: RIG, Hauser & Wirth, London

Phyllida Barlow: RIG, Hauser & Wirth, London

Barlow's sculptures are space invaders with attitude

In the main gallery, a forest of poles blocks your pathPeter Mallet. Courtesy of Phyllida Barlow, Hauser & Wirth

Every surface in my house is covered in plaster and brick dust, and wood, sand, cement, plaster and wire mesh are strewn all over the place. Furniture, carpets and pictures are covered in dust sheets and piled into two sealed rooms. You’ve guessed it, I’ve got the builders in and while the scaffolding was up, I spent days nose to wall repointing the brickwork, restoring the pediment and painting the windows.

What a relief to escape from such squalor to a gallery – only to find that Phyllida Barlow’s exhibition is much like home! Bog-standard building materials are her stock-in-trade and her approach to making sculpture, which involves slapping it on “as if it's a job which has got to be done in the shortest possible time” reveals uncanny parallels with my rudimentary DIY skills, except that I’ve been doing my best to master the techniques, while she is debunking the tradition with good humour and gentle irony.

With the boorish insensitivity of a hoard of builders, her sculptures invade every nook and cranny of Hauser & Wirth’s elegant building in Piccadilly. They also have the nerve to strive for mock-heroic monumentality, and the combination of slacker nonchalance and large-scale ambition makes them extremely funny and very endearing.

Dominating the main space is a forest of stilts planted in clumsy cement blobs and held steady with wooden wedges. Stuck precariously on top are what look like big concrete blocks, far too heavy for the flimsy supports. They hover just below the ceiling and from the mezzanine balcony, you get a good view across this sea of matter; the blocks have been draped in red, orange, maroon and blue dust covers that colour the ceiling with patches of reflected light.

Boxes Phyllida_Barlow_RIG_Hauser__Wirth_London_Piccadilly_2011_15These scruffy intruders are not violating any old building, but an oak-panelled masterpiece by Edwin Lutyens that was once a bank. They’ve turned the bank vault into something resembling an art-school storeroom full of assorted junk and abandoned artworks. A group of magnet-shaped strangers huddles in the hallway; stashed on the kind of dais used by models during life-drawing classes are objects resembling easels or chairs but functioning as neither, and lying incongruously on top of the safe are two rolls of wire mesh wrapped in felt and splattered with cement.

Elsewhere someone has piled up some palettes (pictured above: Untitled; crushedboxfeud), dumped an orange bean bag on top and stuck three cardboard boxes sagging with cement on top of that. To remind you that the arrangement is not ad hoc, the boxes are numbered to ensure they go in the right place and a length of scrap wood with rubber tubing neatly wrapped round one end has been inserted in the pile. There’s method in this madness. 

Broken Shelf_Phyllida_Barlow_RIG_Hauser__Wirth_London_Piccadilly_2011_4Barlow has spent four decades teaching in art schools such as the Slade, where she concentrated mainly on those students struggling with their role as artists. Apparently teetering on the verge of collapse, her own work (pictured left: Untitled; broken shelf) constantly flirts with failure, as though questioning what might constitute success while investigating the relationship between sculpture and other objects. Untitled; containers; leaningcoveredholed is like a trio of attempts to build a rubbish container. A pegboard cylinder rests wonkily on a sausage-shaped bean bag; an MDF cylinder has been attacked with a chisel to produce cack-handed perforations mimicking the pegboard and, having shed pink plaster over the floor, the third cylinder has been covered with a giant paper bag as though it were in disgrace.

Barlow has opted for cheap DIY materials over marble, bronze and steel and impromptu assemblages over elegant forms, but the deviance doesn’t stop there. She daubs her sculptures with paint – black, grey and an especially unpleasant pink – to explore the aesthetics of ugliness alongside the arena of ineptitude. Upstairs, the wood-panelled American Room is crammed with plywood units resembling dysfunctional filing cabinets, pigeon holes, cupboards and wine racks; painted black and smeared with pink, they are an absurdist provocation. Useless, ugly and intrusive, their yobbish presence makes the fine room that houses them seem prissy and effete.

Phyllida Barlow_StacksAfter such brutish behaviour, the beauty and restraint of Untitled; hive 3 (pictured right) comes as a real surprise. Two stacks of material such as lino, felt, plasterboard, plywood, chipboard and cardboard that comes in sheets, are layered like a club sandwich; despite the diverse array of textures – hard, soft or spongy, furry or smooth, compact, corrugated or cellular – they look good enough to eat. Hanging in the loft, meanwhile, are giant pompoms made from myriad bits of brightly coloured fabric; they are like a girly afterthought to the macho debate going on below, except that some acrobatics is required to see them.

If, as an artist, you choose to walk a knife-edge between success and failure, it doesn’t allow much leeway. One slip and you’re sliced. Barlow’s show at the Serpentine last year was disappointingly polite, because gallery etiquette was not sufficiently compromised. The sculptures were presented as individual items rather than an invading force, and because you weren’t allowed to interact with them, their status as precious objects went unquestioned. At Hauser & Wirth you have to negotiate your way through and around them; their deliberate awkwardness and obduracy and, more importantly, their ambiguity as DIY tat/valuable artworks forces you into a dialogue that is by turns perplexing, funny and annoying but always rewarding. By giving Phyllida Barlow permission to use and abuse the whole building, the gallery has nurtured a masterpiece of malpractice. This is a show to be reckoned with and also hugely enjoyed.

The gallery has nurtured a masterpiece of malpractice

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